Let me propose this axiom: a human-invented religion will look radically different than the worship of a real god. That is, human longing for the divine (or human imagination) will cobble together a very poor imitation of the real thing.
Let’s first look at a parallel example in the domain of languages. Imagine that you’re a linguist and you’re creating a tree of world languages. Each language should be nearer languages that are related and similar, and it should be farther from those that are dissimilar. Spanish and Portuguese are next to each other on the tree; add French, Italian, and others and call that the Romance Languages; add other language groups like Germanic, Celtic, and Indic and you get the Indo-European family; and so on.
Here’s your challenge: you have two more languages to fit in. First, find the spot for English. It’s pretty easy to see, based on geography, vocabulary, and language structure, that it fits into the Germanic group. Next, an alien language like a real Klingon or Na’vi. This one wouldn’t fit in at all and would be unlike every human language.
Now imagine a tree of world religions. Your challenge is to find the place for Yahweh worship of 1000 BCE. Is it radically different from all the manmade religions, as unlike manmade religions as the alien language was to human languages? Or does it fit into the tree comfortably next to the other religions of the Ancient Near East, like English fits nicely into the Germanic group?
You’d expect the worship of the actual creator of the universe to look dramatically different from religions invented by Iron Age tribesmen in Canaan, but religious historians tell us that Yahweh looks similar to other Canaanite deities like Asherah, Baal, Moloch, Astarte, Yam, or Mot. In fact, Yahweh was a Canaanite god, and the Canaanites worshiped him as well.
What could he be but yet another invented god?
Cruel men invent cruel gods
— Bertrand Russell
(This is a modified version of a post originally published 9/12/11.)
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